Paula Sousa on her brand Munna and promoting her country’s craftsmanship
Paula Sousa, founder of Portuguese furniture brand Munna, talks about her heritage, not following trends and the importance of loving people when designing.
Although the design scene in Portugal is still in its infancy – having started less than two decades ago – the country has long been recognised for its savoirfaire in crafts like upholstery, carpentry, metalsmithing, casting, stonemasonry and gilding. And it is precisely these artisanal traditions that have partially helped the country to recover from a deep recession after decades under a repressive regime, leading to a newfound enthusiasm in Portuguese design.
The northern coastal city of Porto in particular has emerged as a creative powerhouse – referred to as Portugal’s furniture capital with its long tradition of furniture and textiles manufacturing – as new luxury Portuguese homeware brands have launched.
One entrepreneur leading the charge in harnessing the power of local craftsmanship is Paula Sousa, 40, who was born postdictatorship and consequently possesses a global outlook, intent on promoting the “Made in Portugal” label around the
world. After studying at Porto’s College of Art and Design, the Porto native worked for Congiu, a design studio in Milan, and as an interior designer for seven years. Feeling there was a void in the market for contemporary, elegant, sculptural and emotion-evoking furniture inspired by the cinema and various artistic periods like mid-century modern or Art Deco, she founded Munna in 2008, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, followed by the nature-inspired Ginger & Jagger exploring different aesthetics, techniques and materials four years later, and serves as the CEO and creative director of both brands.
Specialising in upholstered chairs, sofas, stools, tables, and folding screens in a multitude of colours, Munna is based in Porto to be close to its artisans. Production is restricted to just over 1,000 pieces per year as all the furniture is handcrafted, and each piece takes up to eight weeks to manufacture. The brand even invites Portuguese designers to reinvent existing creations as limited editions that are more creative and less commercial.
Munna furniture is a showcase of Portuguese materials, especially highquality textiles like velvet, leather and silk. It incorporates fine wood veneers such as ebony, walnut and rosewood and detailed plating in brass, nickel and copper combined with the application of gold, silver and copper leaf and premium lacquers. Munna has been pivotal in developing a new generation of artisans, working with local workshops where the craftsmen range in age from their 20s to their 60s, with trades passed down from one generation to the next. “What we need now in Portugal is to maintain culture, to keep traditions alive, and the artisans understand that production is culture,” Sousa states.
Critical success for Munna came in the form of the Becomes Me armchair, which took home the 2012 International Product Design Award, but the first piece to appear on the cover of a magazine was the Candy armchair in 2009. The Sophia armchair recently featured in the spy comedy Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and David Byrne and Jennifer Lopez are clients. Van Cleef & Arpels handpicked the Margaret armchair and sofa to embellish its flagship stores internationally, and Munna has collaborated with Parisian high-end furnishing fabrics brand Lelièvre and luxury fashion house Chloé.
Sousa may have started off working alone in a garage, but today she employs 17 staff, of which five compose her inhouse design team. Present in over 50 markets worldwide and more than 100 residential, commercial and hospitality projects – including the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and St. James Court Hotel in London and Le Royal Méridien in Abu Dhabi – Munna has showrooms in Saudi
Arabia, Moscow, Istanbul and Miami. Its top three markets are the UK, France and Russia, and revenues achieved over €3 million last year, while Sousa continues to work hard to ensure the production of original, high-end Portuguese-made furniture that will last a lifetime.
What did you learn from your past work experiences that you have brought to Munna?
You first need to know what your clients need, so working as an interior designer was important for me to get the notion of space, budget, colour schemes, typology of spaces. I knew what I needed to have from different brands to present a very good project to my clients. And in terms of armchairs and sofas, I felt there was a lack of emotion. There was something missing in the market. I also wanted to go out from my country to understand what the best were doing, and Milan is a market for design and brands. I worked for a studio there where we studied different brands like Minotti, Molteni and Alessi, and we designed products that they might want to have, which the main designer could then go to present to them. We had to study branding, brand values, mission, age, typology of consumers, types of products they were lacking. So I learnt during that period how I could drive my own company in the future and how I could manage a design team. Then I complemented my education with a post-graduate degree in communication and luxury marketing because I wanted to create a luxury brand, not commercial design.
How would you describe the Munna aesthetic?
It is a very feminine, fun and cinematographic brand. The aim is to produce pieces that are new classics, so they don’t follow trends but are timeless. In my work, I’m inspired by art because an artist is always trying to say something that no one has thought of before, and secondly by fashion because of the colours and the moods.
Tell me about your creative process.
It’s a very chaotic thing. We never start with the needs, solving problems. We start with an idea we want to do, then what type of product do we need that we don’t have in the collection because you need to have balance. I always do the briefing for the team with mood boards, with ideas and feelings that I want to pass on, with products that are missing. We start to have meetings, then the design director distributes to different designers the pieces they are going to create. They sketch, then we put everything on a big wall and I start to edit, adjust and refine without knowing which designer drew the sketch. After we do 2D and 3D models on the computer, we speak with the artisans to see what’s
possible to produce – never before, so we don’t limit the process. Then we make the prototype.
Which is your favourite Munna product?
It’s hard to say because I like so many, but the Margaret chair that I designed appeals to me most. It’s very simple, but it’s a reinvention of the wing chair. And then I love the Chantal armchair, which I have in my apartment in Porto, because it’s so unique and won a 2017 Good Design Award and European Product Design Award.
Do you follow prevailing furniture trends?
No because if you follow trends, you are not being your own brand and following your own values; you are just competing with something that already exists. It’s better to create a trend.
Has Munna started a trend?
When we created the Fringes collection, which is opulent and baroque, fringes weren’t trendy. I never thought it was going to be so well received, but it was on the cover of all the magazines, trend alerts and everything, so I think we created that. It was also one of the most challenging pieces we’ve made because you have to cut the fringes perfectly like you are cutting hair.
What is your vision of the future of design?
The future of design can only go further if the needs of human beings are understood. In the end, it’s about people, not objects. Everything you design is for people, so designers need to love people first of all and to create something that can improve their lives in terms of psychology, functionality and beauty. If you sit in a chair that’s sexy or beautiful, you feel even more beautiful. This is the basis of design, to study people even more.
What are your thoughts on Asia?
I really love Asia – I fly there at least once per year. I’ve been to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. It’s chaotic which I love, and then you drive out from the city and you see people connected with nature in a way that I don’t see anywhere else in the world. And I love the cultures and religions there as well. I also love the way you give importance to luxury and how things are made. Asia is a very good market and we have very good dealers there.
What are your upcoming projects?
We are growing the range of Munna products and we are going into bedrooms, things like headboards. We don’t have the concept of sleep yet in our collections. And we will continue to invest in improving quality; it’s my main focus in the year ahead.
A reinvention of the wing chair, the Margaret Armchair is Sousa’s favourite because of its simplicity
The fun and feminine Fringe collection is a trendsetter
The Chantal armchair won the 2017 Good Design Award and European Product Design Award